You cannot beat a good shepherd’s pie. It’s the epitome of comfort food. Mashed potatoes and cheese, a stew-y meat and root veg base, baked until bubbly and crisp around the edges… it’s pretty amazing. Even writing that makes me crave the dish and I literally just made it for this article.
The thing with shepherd’s pie is that it’s kind of like Italian Sunday gravy or a pancake recipe. Everyone has their own take (sometimes passed down for generations) and they’re willing to spend hours arguing over what’s “right” or “wrong.” I find that looking for those sorts of absolutes in culturally traditional foods is both boring and dumb, so please understand from the outset: this is simply the way I like to make it, right or wrong.
My shepherd’s pie leans traditional and, not too surprisingly, Irish. I’ve based it on shepherd’s pies I’ve had in Irish pubs, both in and out of Ireland. I don’t add peas because cooked peas are the one thing I don’t dig. I love fresh peas off the vine. But a bowl of pea soup is basically my culinary kryptonite. I also like adding parsnip and mushroom to give it a little more root veg crunch and earthy umami.
Other than those tiny tweaks, this is a pretty straightforward recipe.* Yes, it’s long. But the skill needed is entry-level — it’s a workman’s dish (literally, a shepherd’s!), so all the cuts are rough. We’re talking true rustic cooking. From start to finish, it’ll take about 90 minutes and 45 minutes of that will be baking and cooling.
Okay, that enough preamble. Let’s get into this one.
*If you don’t dig lamb, use beef. That’s all a “cottage pie” is after all — a shepherd’s pie with beef instead of lamb.
Ingredients for the meat base:
- 1 lb. ground lamb
- 1 parsnip
- 1 carrot
- 1 yellow onion
- 2 garlic cloves
- 1/2 cup mushrooms
- 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste
- 1/2 tsp. dried rosemary
- 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
- 1/4 cup Guinness
- 1 cup beef stock
- 1 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 tbsp. AP flour
- Black pepper
- Broadleaf parsley
- Neutral oil for cooking
I try and use a ground lamb with at least 10 percent fat. You want some fat left in the pan after you brown the meat to sweat the veg but not too much. From there, a lot of this is just recommendations on what works for me. If you want to add peas or corn or beans, no one is stopping you. (Though, beans feels like we’re veering close to sacrilege — and like a lot of starch.)
Ingredients for potato topping:
- 1 lb. potatoes (Yukon Gold)
- 1/4 cup full-fat milk
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1 cup grated aged Irish cheddar
- A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- White pepper
A quick note on the cheese. I used a well-aged white cheddar, the kind the crumbles as you try and grate it. An analog in the U.S. would be the Extra-Sharp Tillamook Cheddar in the black plastic packaging or Croc Extra Sharp. I find the sharpness is a better counterpoint to the already creamy mashed potatoes. So instead of creamy on creamy, you have sharp and cheesy on the creamy potato.
What You’ll Need:
- Large pot
- Cast iron skillet or large, deep frying pan that’s oven safe
- Kitchen knife
- Wooden spoon
- Veg peeler
- Cutting board
- Box grater
- Potato masher or ricer
- Measuring cups/spoons
- Baking sheet
- Preheat oven to 400F.
- Peel potatoes and place them whole in cold water with a big pinch of salt.
- Place the pot on the stove and turn on the heat to high. Bring to a rolling boil for 15 to 20 minutes until the potatoes are soft (use a small knife to check softness). Drain and set aside in the pot they were cooked in with a lid on top.
- Dice the carrot, mushrooms, and parsnip; mince the garlic and chop the onion.
- Heat about 2 tablespoons of neutral oil in a cast-iron skillet on medium-high heat.
- Add in the ground lamb with a large pinch of salt. Cook until fully browned, making sure to break it up as it browns.
- Remove lamb to a bowl and then add in the onion, carrot, parsnip, and mushroom into the remaining fat left in the pan from frying the lamb. Sweat until onion is transparent but not browned (maybe five minutes) and the carrot is just softening.
- Add in the herbs, garlic, and tomato paste. Stir until fragrant (about one minute).
- Add the lamb back in with the Worcestershire sauce and Guinness. Simmer until the beer is cooked off.
- Add the butter and let melt.
- Add in the flour and mix in.
- Add in the broth and stir until fully emulsified.
- As that simmers on medium-low heat for about ten minutes to help the flavors marry and thicken a little, make the mashed potatoes by dry mashing the potatoes and then adding the milk, butter, salt, white pepper, and nutmeg to the pot and stirring with a spatula or wooden spoon.
- Grate the cheddar cheese.
- Add 1/2 of the grated cheese into the mashed potatoes. Stir in.
- Remove the meat base from the heat. Taste for seasoning and add black pepper and salt to taste. I added a fair few cranks of black pepper but it was already well salted.
Put it all together:
- Gently scoop the mashed potatoes over the meat base, smoothing out as you go. Make sure it goes all the way to the edges.
- Top with the rest of the cheddar.
- Place the skillet on a baking sheet and place it in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted and starting to brown and bubble.
- Remove from oven and let rest at least 15 minutes before serving. This is crucial — you need liquid to evaporate and fat to redistribute.
- Finely chop some fresh parsley and sprinkle it over the whole pie.
- Plate up and serve (preferably with a Guinness).
Wow. This is so comforting. The base is meaty with that slight lamb-iness and tons of umami, a slight barley vibe, and good root veg crunch and sweetness. The potatoes are super soft, buttery, and still hold that touch of earthy nutmeg. The cheese is gooey towards the center and crispy on the edges with a serious sharpness. All combined, each bite warmed the soul.
Thing is, I don’t have the skills to plate this dish in a way that’s photogenic. Few chefs do. I could have made the meat base thicker — so that it stands up for a photo but that would have made it a brick, not a lush meaty gravy.
To give you a better idea of the finished product, you can see the cross-section of the pie below. The thing about shepherd’s pie is that I already can’t wait to eat this tomorrow as leftovers. I know it’s going to be even better with those flavors all having time to further marry and amp up. I ended up with six large or eight small servings — and I can’t wait to get to them!